On Reading Outdoors
What if the space into which a book is opened determines the story that it conjures? If this is true, then it means your place in the world shapes a book even as a book shapes you.
Last Sunday, I reread Don DeLillo’s Point Omega, in two sittings. I read the first half outside, the morning sun gaining strength as it climbed the back of my neck and head, tendrils of steam from my coffee wisping away in my peripheral vision. I got about halfway, had to put it down, and I returned to my seat in the backyard after dinner, where I finished with the sun now levelling at my eyes.
Point Omega is a ponderable, cryptic book that demands quiet introspection. The bulk of the slim volume is set in the desert, with the verbal and physical interactions of its characters mapping a kind of philosophical treatise on space and time, loss and trauma. I had read it before, but this time reading it in the open air amplified its strange power, its disorienting effects.
It is a book about quiet, and distance, and heat, and stillness, and so as I sat quietly in the open air, underneath a cloudless sky and a burgeoning sun, the words I lifted off the page ran through my head and also through the little world around me, so that the book and my head and the little world – the blue sky, the sun, the cedars, the birdcalls, the garden hose burping as it filled the childrens’ wading pool, the grit on the paving stones beneath my feet – seem to slide through an array of conflations, collisions, reactions. I wasn’t just reading, but reading into a space, and the words honed my attentiveness to the space and the space honed my attentiveness to the words. Ostensibly simple lines like these became profound:
The sun was burning down. This is what he wanted, to feel the deep heat beating into his body, feel the body itself, reclaim the body from what he called the nausea of News and Traffic.
I read these lines as a runlet of sweat crept down my breastbone. Deep heat. In the book. Around the book. In me.
These lines, much different, also resonated in the open air:
The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written not by anyone, ever. The true life takes place when we’re alone, thinking, feeling, lost in memory, dreamingly self-aware, the submicroscopic moments.
And so I find myself reflecting on the true life, on thinking, on feeling, on memory and dreamlike self-awareness, and on how all of these things are sharpened by the the act of reading, and sharpened again by reading outdoors.
I took Don Quixote on my honeymoon. Read it poolside, oceanside, half drunk and half naked. The cover of my edition is sandscoured and its corners are still curled from the humid air and the sweat from my palms. I read the entire thing, I swear, every one of the 800 (maybe 900?) some-odd pages, but after the lovely description of Quixote’s library and his reading addiction, and the bit with the windmill tilting (all of which happens early on), I could tell you very little about this book.
In the library of my memory, the pages of Don Quixote aren’t filled with words, but rather images, sensations. The way my wife’s eyes catch drops of sunlight and the way grains of sand tumbled from our skin and mixed in the air when we joined hands to walk down the beach. And the way a storm on the Pacific coast builds out of sight all day long with the heat, and then in late evening lopes darkly over the water toward you, electrifies the air you breathe and rattles your chest like a thunderbolt thrown by some nameless god.
Reading outdoors as a child often meant reading in and under trees.
Cradled by limbs. Swallowed by hammocks. A bit of shade. The trees made me feel safe, I suppose. And the books did too.
I read The Son, by Philipp Meyer, against the backdrop of Steamboat Rock, Washington, a massive outcropping that looks like a stone warhammer discarded by a Titan who has abandoned the earth.
Gliding overhead is a crow with a ragged hole near the tip of its wing, so that its shadow seems to carry the eye of the sun itself, roaming wildly over the surface of the earth.
I read much of Gulliver’s Travels by flashlight in a yurt along the Washington coast. The rhythm of the ocean grinding away at the beach washes through a small copse of trees and urges me to sleep.
I dream of ghostly men, shades or spirits that twist in the air, and I can’t decide if they beckon me forward or warn me away. They are purple and deep blue and when I wake they seem to linger in the room for just an instant after my eyelids have slid open.
My daughter sits on my lap and together we read the last few pages of the second volume of the Sisters Grimm series, a clever updating of fairy tales that places creatures and heroes of folklore in a contemporary setting. My eyes strain to read by firelight. The fire pops and snarls, and shadows condense all around us. She leans closer.
The book’s climax is raucous and slightly violent and it ends with an eerie cliffhanger. My imagination is fish-hooked and I can’t wait to start the next installment, which I know she has brought along in her backpack. Later, wrapped in her sleeping bag she whispers in the dark that she doesn’t want to continue reading this series. “Not until I’m a bit older,” she says.
Grey mountains stab at blue skies in the background as I read Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins. This is the bit that sticks with me:
Life, he thought, is a blatant act of imagination.
I think about life as a story, life as a book broken into chapters or maybe just one long chapter, with scar tissue like torn pages or spots where the corners of the leaves have been turned over to mark something memorable.
I think about growing older and the endings of things, but the mountains seem beyond such reckoning.
Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes: I am sitting on a balcony in southern British Columbia in late summer. I am pouring cheap cans of beer down my throat and sweating them out as soon as they hit my gut. The intense heat radiates off the smooth wall behind me and makes everything seem to blur and waver.
This is a harrowing novel of The Vietnam War that opens with a soldier in agony from a leech up his dick. The grotesqueness and terror and dark humour of this scenario combine to make me nauseous. Page after page, I encounter acts of bravery that humble me. Shame me. These paper lives are imbued with a vitality and importance that I can never lay claim to.
Another beer. The heat. The heat. I am seared to splitting. I am kiln-blasted.
A few fat raindrops have curdled the pages of my copy of Lance Weller’s Wilderness. I move inside until the sun returns. If life is a book, I wonder how to explain raindrops on your pages.
On page two a woman, old and blind, sees in her imagination
suncups pressed into high snowfields that never melt, that are laced with watermelon fungus that never moves and feeds on sunlight and is always full.
Suncups. A mere two syllables, and yet as soon as I read them I know my perspective on the world is forever changed. Who can read that word and look at a mountain in the same way as before?
Much later, another woman
looked at the backs of her hands where the bones ran wrist-to-knuckle like rake tines, like the hard implements of labor they were.
I look at the backs of my hands and watch my tendons flex around the book. Glaring white hot in midday, the pages themselves seem to absorb enough energy so that, later, they illume in the precious minutes between the sun’s vanishment and full dark.
Lonesome Dove. I am reading this as we tent our way through Montana. We hike in the afternoon and find the tiny, desiccated skull of a mouse or squirrel. This is a good find, strange and exciting. We roll the skull over with a stick and peer into minuscule chambers and tunnels through which the mystery of the thing once rilled. After the hike I am reading my book and I come across these lines from Augustus McCrae:
“That old badger made a good snatch and got himself a few bones. But the ground will get his bones too, in a year or two. It’s like I told you last night, son. The earth is mostly just a boneyard.
“But pretty in the sunlight,” he added.
I read these lines in the fading light before I go to start a campfire and sit with my family. My son is stirring cold ashes with a stick, and without looking up he asks me how that mouse or squirrel might have died. I tell him that I don’t know, and as soon as these words escape me I know that I have failed to fully appreciate his question. That night as I tilt my head to face a starblown sky, I think about the lines from Lonesome Dove again.
Starblown is a word I stole from Cormac McCarthy. I read a lot of McCarthy outdoors. I can remember crawling out of a tent in Washington state to watch the sunrise and finish No Country For Old Men. The world is dewpolished, and the fine details of things – pebbles, tree limbs, blades of grass – seem to sharpen as light begins to cut through the crisp air. I can see my breath. My fingers ache with cold and work like rusted hinges. I turn the bitter pages quietly so as not to wake the sleepers hidden behind the canvas beside me, worlds away. The heat in my body’s core seems a tenuous thing, vulnerable amidst the harsh edges of the morning. I am an ember glowing faintly in the grey tumble of waking things. The lake that hovers in view over the top of my book glimmers like beaten metal. The woods at the lake’s edge are black with the memory of the night just passed. If I sat in this spot all day I could watch them bloom green and then fade to black again.
McCarthy’s Blood Meridian was probably the first book that alerted me to the link between reading and the outdoors. All of the camping trips that I have packed it on blur together in my mind. It is a book that needs a horizon, a big sky. To read it indoors seems to shackle it in some way.
Everyone remembers the Judge from Blood Meridian. He is evil incarnate, perhaps even the devil himself. Despite his brutality, the Judge’s exchanges with his fellow scalphunters are charged with a philosophical clarity that becomes strangely alluring in a world of ruin and fire and blood. Take, for example, what the Judge says about books:
Books lie, he said.
God dont lie.
No, said the judge. He does not. And these are his words.
He held up a chunk of rock.
He speaks in stones and trees, the bones of things.
Stones. Trees. The bones of things. What if the judge is right in his infernal triangulation of meaning?
What if the space into which a book is opened is itself a story to be read? It would mean that reading – true reading – involves not just words on pages but a secret archive of another order, one hiding in plain sight, awaiting translation in thought, feeling, memory, dreams.
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